Acclaimed Jamaican showman pioneered reggae’s rise
Toots Hibbert, one of reggae’s founders and most beloved stars who gave the music its name and later helped make it an international movement through such classics as “Pressure Drop,” “Monkey Man” and “Funky Kingston,” has died. He was 77.
Hibbert, frontman of Toots & the Maytals, had been in a medically induced coma at a hospital in Kingston since earlier this month. He was admitted in intensive care after complaints of having breathing difficulties according to his publicist. Local media reported that the singer was awaiting results from a coronavirus test after showing symptoms.
A family statement said Frederick Nathaniel Hibbert (“Toots” was a childhood nickname) died Friday at University Hospital of the West Indies in Kingston surounded by family.
Ziggy Marley, son of Bob Marley, tweeted about the death, saying he spoke with Hibbert a few weeks ago and
“told him how much i loved him we laughed & shared our mutual respect,” adding, “He was a father figure to me.”
A muscular exboxer, Hibbert was a bandleader, songwriter, multiinstrumentalist and showman whose concerts sometimes ended with dozens of audience members dancing with him onstage. He was also, in the opinion of many, reggae’s greatest singer, so deeply spiritual he could transform “Do re mi fa so la ti do” into a hymn. His raspy tenor, uncommonly warm and rough, was likened to the voice of Otis Redding and made him more accessible to American listeners than many reggae artists. Original songs such as “Funky Kingston” and
“5446 That’s My Number” had the emotion and call and response arrangements known to soul and gospel fans. Hibbert even recorded an album of American hits, “Toots in Memphis,” which came out in 1988.
Never as immersed in politics as his friend and great contemporary Bob Marley, Hibbert did invoke heavenly justice in “Pressure Drop,” preach peace in “Revolution,” righteousness in “Bam Bam” and scorn his 1960s drug arrest and imprisonment in “5446 That’s My Number.” He also captured, like few others, everyday life in Jamaica in the years after its independence from Britain in 1962, whether telling of wedding jitters (“Sweet and Dandy”) or of trying to pay the rent (“Time Tough”). One of his most popular and surprising songs was his reworking of John Denver’s nostalgic “(Take Me Home) Country Roads,” with the setting changed from West Virginia to a world Hibbert knew so well.
By the mid1970s, Keith Richards, John Lennon, Eric Clapton and countless other rock stars had become reggae fans and Hibbert would eventually record with some of them.
Married to his wife, Doreen, for nearly 40 years, Hibbert had eight children, including the reggae performers Junior Hibbert and Leba Hibbert.
He formed the Maytals with fellow singers Matthias and Gordon, started working with Jamaican record producer Coxsone Dodd and quickly became the star of the national festival competition that started in 1966.
The Maytals began when ska was the most popular music, continued to rise during the transition to the slowed down rocksteady and were at the very forefront of the faster, more danceable sound of the late ’60s. Their uptempo chant “Do the Reggay” is widely recognized as the song that gave reggae its name, even if the honor was unintended.
Toots Hibbert performs at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio (Riverside County) in 2017.